Starred Up: A Return to Oz

There’s nothing like a family reunion, especially when it takes place in a British penitentiary

And for new inmate Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), who last recalls being with his pop, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), when he was a five-year-old, it should be especially poignant. After all, there he was bouncing upon dadda’s knee, a knee that’s been doing hard time ever since.

But now that he’s 19, equally tattooed and comparably psychotic to his old man, plus prone to ungovernable outbursts, Eric, after being prematurely transferred to the aforementioned adult prison, isn’t being overly sentimental. In fact, the first thing the lad does is melt his toothbrush and stick a razor blade in it. A homemade weapon just sometimes trumps daily dental care and father’s day cards.

Shortly thereafter, Eric punches out a jail-mate who wants to light his fag, steals some candy from an inmate who touches his baked potato, and puffs away in his no-smoking-allowed therapy group. He also gets beat up a lot, but achieves a revenge of sorts by biting an Officer Johnson’s johnson through his slacks for a lengthy time period.

This whole time as Eric is being a rowdy, Neville, with the advice of his cellmate and male lover, tries to look out for the lad, but you can’t really just jump into fatherhood like you can instantly play Candy Crush or make pierogies. His attempts constantly misfire. 

However, Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), a highly sensitive volunteer psychotherapist, is a bit more successful at teaching Eric some anger management techniques, though not for long.

Now please note that I’ve deciphered all of the above while not comprehending 70% of the dialogue. If a Brit film ever begged for English subtitles, this is the one. First, there’s the vocabulary, which the production notes label “Prison Speak.” For example, “acki” is a fellow Muslim. “bacon” is any type of sex offender, while “kick off back door” is anal sex. Then there are the lower-class Brit accents that are impenetrable to the untrained ear. Oh, dear! Where’s Henry Higgins when you need him?

Wondering if this problem were mine alone, I asked a fellow critic outside the IFC Center’s lavatories if he could make out what was being mumbled. He smiled with a nod, but then added he had lived in England for five years. If I had only known, I have a friend Leicestershire I could have shacked up with in 2009.

Unintelligibility aside, the acting is solid, the direction spot on, and if you want to scare your children into leading a straight life, this film will achieve the task. Like the series Oz, Starred Up visualizes what Jack Henry Abbot wrote in his classic prison memoir In the Belly of the Beast: “I wanted to convey to you what it means to be in prison after a childhood spent in penal institutions. To be in prison so long, it’s difficult to remember exactly what you did to get there. So long, your fantasies of the free world are no longer easily distinguishable from what you ‘know’ the free world is really like. So long, that being free is exactly identical to a free man’s dream of heaven. To die and go to the free world.” - Brandon Judell

(Starred Up opens in theatres on August 29. VOD begins August 26.)

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Mr. Judell has written on film for The Village VoiceindieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.

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